How to Use Distractions Successfully in IGP Dog Training
Many of us train by ourselves in our back yards, living rooms, gardens, etc. We are super busy, and it saves so much time to step through the door and begin training. Usually, it is going well, and the dog is responding great.
Then we go to the club—the same location every week or twice a month, etc. Names are usually listed on the board, and everyone knows when it is their turn. We patiently wait until the other team leaves the field so we can go and train. And so we do.
Before the trial, we are paired with the team that will do a Long Down with us and vice versa. Then the trial comes with all the unexpected things.
It starts raining, and many umbrellas are popping up, including one of the judge. Your dog is heeling. He glances at the sudden motion and continues looking in the direction of the judge and his umbrella. You try to get the dog’s focus back, but there is already a loss in points.
An “outsider” of the club is warming up his dog in the parking lot with some spinning and some barking. Your dog glances away on his way back with the dumbbell. More points are lost.
After the trial, you decide that you should get your dog ready for the distractions. You enroll your club members and ask them to get onto the field. You ask them to “distract” your dog. Kindly-hearted people wave their arms, drop their hats, suddenly convulse in coughing fits, etc. Your dog’s head is moving from one direction to another. You diligently tell your dog to “fuss,” give him a pop and continue working: fuss, pop, fuss, pop, and so it goes. The dog is not doing well, you keep popping, and both of you are frustrated.
It is quite possible that your score might not improve in the next trial, and you will wonder why.
Distractions are a part of impulse control and are crucial to our success. It is important when and how to use them.
When we teach the dog something new, it is done best in a quiet, distraction-free environment. We want to be as efficient as possible. Once the dog grasps the behavior, we should try to generalize it, which means that we should practice it in new places. Of course, not in the center of a Christmas Parade. At least not in the beginning.
The dog learns that the behavior is the same no matter where it is performed. Then we increase distractions further. We have to remember that we cannot simply throw unexpected circumstances at the dog and hope he will withstand them. It has to be a learning event and not a struggle of wills.
For the dog to learn, he needs to understand which behavior is desired and which behavior is undesired. If your friend keeps walking in a circle around your dog while you are doing Stationary Basic Position and you continuously correct and redirect your dog - you are stuck in a cycle. The dog will learn to look away, wait until you make a noise, or tap your chest to get his attention, then look away. This sequence will be repeated. The behavior does not become resilient to distractions.
First and foremost, distractions must be applied strategically. It is similar to building muscles. You increase repetitions and weight a little a time. The same, you have to set your dog for success.
If your friend is trying to distract your dog - ask him to do an action and stop. The dog will look away and will return his attention to you. With puppies, we always do it unaided. With the adults, we use Negative Reinforcement. It will not create dependency if used properly. Once the dog returns his attention, you mark and reinforce.
You repeat the same distraction again. With repetitions, your dog will lose interest in the distraction. The best thing is to mark and reinforce the dog as the distraction happens, and the dog’s focus is on you.
Once this works - you go to the next type of distraction. In reality, we cannot prepare the dog for any eventuality, but we can teach him to look and return his focus to us as quickly as possible. Yes, if the judge trips and falls - every dog will look. We would want our dog to look, process, and return to you because this is the only behavior that pays without conflict.
If the distraction is very lengthy in the very beginning, for instance, your friend is running around you and your dog, it might not offer a good learning possibility. The dog does not have a chance to offer the correct behavior. All we are doing is creating more conflict and insecurity. The dog is not able to get out of the cycle of correction. The best way to approach is to increase duration slowly, allowing the dog to win.
The best outcome is that distractions can actually become cues for attention.
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